What happens when a friend asks you this?… #GMOs @AJStein_de

This is what happened when Alexander J. Stein, an economist from the EU with research interests in ag and food security, was asked this:

bullet-Leaf“Do you have any recommendations for reading about the debate on GMOs? I think there is a lot of heat, but too little light in the discussion; I trust you can send me some…”

To which he responded:

bullet-Leaf“Sure, I will look into it, select a few references and post them…”

Alexander Stein provides your one-stop shop for everything GMOs and safety and public perceptions … And if all that isn’t enough, check out these resources that I have compiled (some overlap with AS’s)

As you can tell, GMOs is not a topic that you can throw down in a one-hour google search or by surfing through your social media feed. Thanks AS for Bringing Light into the Discussion about GMOsGreat blog post!

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FOIA. It’s the New Four-Letter Word.

bullet-LeafSeveral weeks ago, I was notified by my alma mater (the University of Saskatchewan) that the US Right to Know (USRTK) had submitted an Access To Information Act (ATIP) request seeking the production of documents pertaining to “…Camille (Cami) D. Ryan, formerly a professional associate in the Department of Bioresource Policy Business and Economics at the College of Agriculture”.

I was not surprised. Why? For the past year or more, I watched this Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) issue unfold. High profile academics working in agricultural research and outreach all over North America, and their home institutions, were subjected to public records requests from USRTK. I have had close working relationships with only a few of these academics. One is my former PhD supervisor, some have been co-authors on articles or chapters, others I have had the opportunity to meet/work with at conferences or other science-related events. Many I haven’t even met while others I have only connected with in passing. I know them all by reputation. These academics are credible, public sector scientists with decades of experience working in agriculture-related research. They are plant and animal geneticists, political economists, plant breeders, microbiologists, etc., who – through their work – are making significant steps forward in crop research, varietal development, and in how our food is produced and distributed in the world. While I recognize that I am just a ‘small fish’ in a ‘large pond’ of brilliant academics, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I received a request due to these connections that I have and (more likely) to my recent move to Monsanto.

What the FOIA?!

FOIA and its Canadian equivalent, ATIP, are laws enacted to allow for the full or partial disclosure of documents controlled by government organizations (including public sector universities). These laws and the ‘request mechanisms’ are intended to protect public interest by ensuring that public sector organizations and those that are employed by them are operating on the up-and-up. Quite simply, they are accountability mechanisms.

Early last year, 14 US scientists were targeted with FOIA records requests. As of now, that number has risen to well over 40 and more recent efforts have expanded into multiple rounds of searches of emails requested by not only USRTK, but other NGOs, activists, and journalists as well. All are intent on looking for “nefarious” connections linking public sector researchers with corporations and other industry organizations.

Let’s be clear. Relationships between academics and industry do exist. I have blogged about the Genome Canada model here. Few, if any, academics would apologize for these kinds of interactions. In the agriculture sector, academic-industry connections have led to important changes in the food security system, to the development of better crop varieties, and other innovations that have social and economic value.  The impetus behind this is laid out in the Morill Act  (Steve Savage talks in more detail about that here) with the stated purpose for Land Grant universities to promote research, education, and outreach in the “agricultural and industrial arts”.  Yes, outreach. The relationships between the public and private sectors are part of this mission to ensure that socially and economically valuable innovations reach the people who need them.

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FOIA Me. FOIA You.

The tidy little package that the USRTK will receive from the U of S will consist of only 168 pages of emails sourced from my account via the university server. These emails were generated based upon a search (17 search terms identified by USRTK such as “Monsanto”, “Syngenta”, “BASF”, “Ketchum”, etc) of my email folders covering the two-year span of time from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2013 (when my research contract ended with the U of S).

Yep. That’s 168. Pages. This is a mere drop in the FOIA bucket. In my case, the estimated invoice for production of these documents by the U of S for USRTK is ~$3500 CDN. But this amount doesn’t even begin to reflect the actual costs imposed on university faculty and personnel, including those that work in IT, administration, and the university’s legal department. Now, amplify these kinds of costs across 40+ FOIA respondents and their home institutions. Imagine the time, administration, and opportunity costs that have been amassed all across North America for this FOIA initiative.

The social and economic costs are considerable. This means less time spent on conducting research, training graduate students, teaching, and writing/administering grant applications.

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While USRTK and others purport to uncover mass collusion in agricultural research, what they are really uncovering is the social, human animal at work. Nothing more. These are scientists – #scientistsarepeople – working in related areas, interacting with one another and exchanging ideas, collaborating on projects, and co-publishing; working to find solutions to social, economical and scientific challenges that cannot be addressed by any one person, organization or institution in isolation.

So, who the FOIA cares?

We should all care. The costs alone are problematic (see above). These email requests amount to taking a subset of raw footage and twisting it into stories that feed into an inflexible, pre-conceived narrative. While freedom of information laws are designed to serve a public good (ensure accountability), they can also be used as tools to intimidate and diminish public good – to subvert democracy.

The silver lining to this cloudy issue may be in the ‘call to action’ for those of us working in the areas of agriculture, science, and innovation. Scientists are the experts. As experts and advocates in private and public sectors, we need to continue to work (collectively) towards solving problems that make sense for societies. But we also need to communicate better about how these relationships are structured and why they matter. Now – more than ever – we need to be transparent about the work that we do and how we do it if we are to earn and maintain public trust.leaf2

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 “Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.”

― Dara Ó Briain

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Related articles:

Brown, Kristen V. (2016). “How internet trolls silenced a scientist…and why we need to rethink our entire approach to harassment online.” Fusion. February 24th.

Brown, Tracy. (2016). “It’s silly to assume all research funded by corporations is bent.” The Guardian.

Genetic Expert News Service. (2015) “Biotech researchers concerned FOIA requests could chill public outreach.” September 8.

Johnson, Nathanael. (2015). “Are Scientists that Collaborate with Industry Tainted?“. The GRIST. September 9.

Kroll, David. (2015) “What the New York Times Missed on Folta and Monsanto’s Cultivations of Academic Scientists.” September 10.

Lipton, Eric. (2015) “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show.” New York Times. September 5.

Parrott, Wayne. (2015). “Time to end transparency double-standard targeting biotech scientists.” Generic Literacy Project. September 15.

Ropeik, David. (2015). “What’s More Dishonest: Scientists Taking Corporate Cash or Mudslingers Attacking Them?” Big Think.

Savage, Steve. (2015). “An Important Public-Private Partnership is Under Attack.” Forbes. August 31.

Senapathy, Kavin. (2015). “Misuse of FOIA: Bullying a mother, scientist, nutrition and lactation expert.” Biology Fortified. September 10.

Van Eenennaam, Alison. (2016). “Who Should Fund University Research?” BioBeef Blog.

Van Eenennaam, Alison. (2015). “I’ve been FOIA ed.” Genetic Literacy Project. September 11.

Select References:

BioChica. (2015). “The funding of science: public & private sector collaborations.” FrankenFoodFacts.

Bruininks, Robert H. (2005). “Regional Economies in Transition: The Role of the Land Grant University in Economic Development”. Paper presented for discussion to the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC).

Chassy, Bruce. (2015).”The USRTK FOIA: 40-plus years of public science, research and teaching under assault”. Academics Review.

GeneticsExperts.org (2015). “Freedom of information requests reveal how scientists interact with seed, chemical and organic companies”.

Giddings, V., R. D. Atkinson, and J.J. Wu. (2016). “Suppressing Growth: How GMO Opposition Hurts Developing Nations.” Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. February.

International Development Research Centre. (2014). “New public-prviate partnerships address global food security.” http://www.idrc.ca/en/regions/global/pages/ResultDetails.Aspx?ResultID=133

Kastner et al. (2015). The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens the U.S. Innovation DeficitReport/Cases studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. April.

Kniss, Andrew. (2015). Three-part series beginning with “Who funds my weed science program?”, “I am biased and so are you”, and “On transparency, intimidation, and being called as shill”. Weed Control Freaks. August.

Novella, Steven. (2015). “FOIA Requests to Biotech Scientists.” NeurologicaBlog. http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/foia-requests-to-biotech-scientists/

Orac. (2016). “Transparency” should not equal a license to harass scientists. Respectful Insolence. http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2016/01/11/transparency-should-not-mean-a-license-to-harass-scientists/

Spielman, D.J. F. Hartwich, and K. von Grebmer. (?) “Public-private Partnerships and Developing-country Agriculture: Evidence from the International Agricultural Research System.” Future Agricultures. http://www.future-agricultures.org/farmerfirst/files/T2a_Spielman.pdf

The Library of Congress. (2016). “Morill Acts.” https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/Morrill.html

 

The Closer You Get… the fear and disgust response

As humans, we all experience a range of emotions: Anger, joy, sadness, surprise, fear and disgust. Fear and disgust are dominant emotional drivers. And you can thank your ancestors for that. Research suggests that we have evolved an “ingrained cognitive response” to things that we perceive as threatening (like spiders and snakes) so that we may survive as a human species.

A personal anecdote

I was involved in a serious car accident in 1986. It was what is referred to as a ‘miss and run’. There were devastating losses (I won’t get into the tragic details). It’s been almost thirty years [update: 32 years ago as of 2018] and while some things were quickly lost in the haze of shock or eventually blurred by time, certain images still lucidly dance across my mind.

Like The Closer You Get…it’s the title track from Alabama’s 7th studio album of the same name. It was playing on cassette in the truck stereo.  In the immediate aftermath of the crash, those beloved classic harmonies were like nails on a chalkboard to me. “Can you please turn the music off?” I asked. An attending RCMP officer obliged, reaching past me through the passenger window to switch off the stereo.

The fear that we felt before and after impact was palpable. Actually, fear became a regular, unwelcome guest in my life. It took several months (dare I say, years) before I could travel down that stretch of highway without experiencing anxiety.  Similarly, it was a long time before I could listen to that Alabama song without my stomach turning inside out.  For me, Highway #7 and that ill-fated song had become synonymous with pain, loss and suffering.

The twin responses of fear and disgust are often intertwined

Feardrivers fall along a continuum. There are immediate and tangible fears; ones that come with real risks. For example, you are caught in a natural disaster like an earthquake or in a flood, or you are at risk of drowning because you overturned your canoe and you don’t have a lifejacket on, or you are skidding on black ice into oncoming traffic on a very busy highway. There are other fears, though, that we experience; those are often perceived as less-than-rational. Things like the fear of needles, of spiders and snakes (see above), of heights or even the fears of leaving your own home. Some fears can be socially debilitating.

Disgustis slightly different but still related. It is the very human response to something we may view as unpleasant or vile in our environment. The ‘contamination-avoidance’ mechanism that kicks in to help us make decisions about something. I had a good friend that loved the name Paris but, in disgust, refused to name her baby daughter that because of what she viewed as Paris Hilton’s highly public, immoral foibles. She couldn’t separate the name Paris from the actions of the celebrity persona.  That’s anecdotal, but the human response phenomenon has been studied by scholars too.  For example, psychologist Paul Rozin conducted a study that included 50 respondents where he discovered, among other things, that people will outwardly and immediately reject delicious, tasty brownies if they are presented in the shape of something unpalatable, like dog feces (imagine that).

Cami's Quadrants of Fear and Disgust

Cami’s Quadrants of Fear and Disgust

Fear and disgust are not only experientially-based, they can be triggered and spread via the power of the Internet and social media.  For example, James McWilliams outlines how the rhetoric of disgust can undermine our  food choices.  In a recent interview by Roberto Ferdman in the Washington Post, Alan Levinovitz, James Madison University Prof and author of The Gluten Lie, is quoted as saying: “…[S]preading fear, before we actually know the truth, endangers society…” We have to take care to tread carefully through those provocative headlines, stories and blogs.

Our emotional responses shape our opinions and beliefs.  Our opinions and beliefs are reinforced through our personal networks  and once stuff gets stuck in our psyche, it’s pretty hard to displace it. Paul Rozin et al (1986) refer to the laws of contagion and similarity, where 1) contagion is qualified as “once in contact, always in contact”), and; 2) similarity holds that “the image equals the object”.  There’s an enduring ‘stickiness’ to images and ideas that are synonymous with our emotional responses. That’s why the word Frankenfood (and the associated images) has been so pervasive in how we view GM foods. And why people object more to GM food than to GMOs developed for other applications (such as insulin in the treatment of diabetes) (Blancke et al 2015).

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The closer you get…

There are physical and moral dimensions of disgust. On that fateful day in 1986 (and many days after), I experienced both. That Alabama song elicited a strong physical response in me – a stomach-churning, heart-palpating reaction. It was a benign, harmless song but one that I associated with a negative experience in my life.

My contempt for the ‘phantom driver’ (Mr. ‘miss and hit’ Guy), on the other hand, existed more on the moral plane. (Please note, my ill-will towards this faceless and nameless individual eventually faded over the years — forgiveness and passage of time are beautiful things, no?)

My fears, at the time, were very present, very real (to me) and also very debilitating. It took a great deal of healing and time before those emotional responses no longer overwhelmed or defined me. Fear and disgust are provoked when we perceive a threat from something.  Each emotion can lead us down a different response path.  While fear primes us to run (‘flight’), disgust readies us to evade something that repulses us. Distinguishing real risk from manufactured or perceived risk requires critical thought. We need to give some time and thought to rationally consider what the real risks of a given situation are. In the end, it’s all about quality of life.

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

– Marcus Aurelius –

Select References:

Blancke, Steffan, Frank Van Breusegem, Geert De Jaeger, Johan Braeckman, and Marc Van Montagu (2015/in press). “Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition.” Trends in Plant Science.

Levinovitz, Alan. (2015 forthcoming). The Gluten Lie.

New, Joshua J. and Tamsin C. German. (2015). “Spiders at the cocktail party: an ancestral threat that surmounts inattentional blindness.” Evolution and Human Behavior. Volume 36, Issue 3. Pps: 165-173.

Rozin, P., Haidt, J., & McCauley, C. R. (2008). “Disgust: The body and soul emotion in the 21st century.” In D. McKay & O. Olatunji (eds.), Disgust and its disorders. Washington DC: American Psychological Association. Pps: 9-29.

Rozin, Paul, Linda Millman, and Carol Nemeroff. (1986). “Operation of the Laws of Sympathetic Magic in Disgust and Other Domains.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 50, No. 4. Pps: 703-712.

Communicating the Science of Agriculture

In October of 2013, I had the distinct pleasure of sharing the podium with Dr. Kevin Folta and Ms. Michele Payn-Knoper as we tackled the very complex (yet fascinating) issue of ag science communication.

It was an unusually chilly day, the frost clung heavily to the evergreens and an eery fog hung over the South Saskatchewan River. But nothing but warmth and the prospect of good discussion greeted us when we arrived at Riverside Golf and Country Club for the day’s events.

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There were 40+ people in attendance: farmers, scientists, policy makers and academics. It was a great day and much of what was discussed is summarized in interviews with Kevin, Michele and me that are currently up on the Genome Prairie website.

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Kevin Folta presents to the crowd gathered at Riverside Golf and Country Club

Kevin and me.

Kevin and me.

Guess what? It turns out that the event in 2013 was an inaugural one.  The Communicating the Science of Agriculture 2014 workshop will be held this year on October 9, 2014 at the Willows Golf and Country Club in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  Our guest is Dr. Steve Savage, plant pathologist, science communicator and author of the blog Applied Mythology.  Register before October 1st to ensure your spot in the workshop!

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“Keep looking up! I learn from the past, dream about the future and look up. There’s nothing like a beautiful sunset to end a healthy day.” – Rachel Boston

The full farm and food immersion experience at #CanolaConnect!

Canola Connect Camp "swag"

Canola Connect Camp “swag”

I was excited to participate last week in the third annual Canola Connect Camp, hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association. It was a full farm and food immersion experience! Writers, dieticians, chefs, media personnel and other food saavy folks, hailing from Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba, were on board the Canola Connect bus as we made tracks around western Manitoba (the Parkland Region) visiting farms and food production operations. We even got to tour the inside of a (circa 1976) grain elevator in Russell, Manitoba!

Without going into too much detail, we Campers saw much, did much (and, subsequently, ate much) in those three tightly packed, event-filled days. There is no end to how each of us could report on or write about given our vastly different perspectives and our overall enthusiasm for the Camp. For my post-Camp blog entry, however, I am going to shed some light on on-farm strategies and practices.  This is an area of interest for me (for work-related reasons) but also because there is a great deal to know and learn about farming in Canada. So much has changed in agriculture in my lifetime alone. As a farmer, it must be hard to keep up with changes in the technology (learning, investing, etc). As a downstream consumer who may have little to no connection to the farm, it is even more difficult to understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of food production especially when there is so much misinformation out there.

DAY ONE: On the very first day of Camp, the Dalgarno family invited us to their farm. In addition to enjoying tasty, catered meal in a neat-as-a-pin shop that would make any man (or woman, for that matter) swoon, we were able to question Andrew and his dad, Bruce, about their operations. Right off, we tackled the ‘elephant in the room’ -> GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Bruce and Andrew talked a bit about the history of genetically engineered canola and its introduction to the market in the mid 1990s. Prior to that, Bruce said, things were much different. Remember the dust-bowls of the 1980s?

“Farmers would have to cultivate the soil to bury the straw to blacken the ground following the previous season’s cereal crop. After that, a granular, soil-applied herbicide was spread and the ground cultivated a second time to mix the herbicide into the soil. The following spring, before seeding canola, we would have to cultivate a third time to activate the herbicide. After the Canola had been seeded in May, we would then have to use a tank mix of 1 or 2 herbicides to control the remaining weeds during June.”  

These kind of activities took time and represented huge expenses for farmers – diesel fuel, cultivator shovels, wear and tear on equipment and labour. More importantly, the soil took a real beating. As Andrew says:

With repeated cultivation, the soil was more exposed to wind and water erosion because the straw was no longer able to protect the ground.”

So, how does genetically engineered Canola and its ‘supposed benefits’ fit into this? The introduction of these new varieties twenty years ago represented huge changes for on-farm management. Less herbicide applied less often meant that farmers were able to more easily adopt environmentally-friendly, soil-conservation practices like min or no till.

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Herbicides, which are a class of pesticide, often get ‘bad press’ but they are a necessary part of the food production process. Check out what Dr. Steve Savage, plant pathologist, has to say in his blog entry “Pesticides: probably less scary than you think”:

“…[W]ithout pesticides our farms would be far less efficient in terms of resource-use-efficiency (land, water, fuel, fertilizers, labor).  That is why both organic and conventional farmers often need to use pesticides.” – Steve Savage

(You can check out glyphosate’s toxicity level relative to other common household consumables here. It is less toxic than caffeine, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and even Vitamin D!)

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DAY TWO: On day two of the Canola Connect Camp, we stopped for a ‘meal in the field’ hosted by Pat and Paul Orsak (‘shout out’ to the Miller family at Silver Creek Bison Ranch for providing the bison for the bison burgers! YUM!)

Paul, his son Owen, and a hired hand (and nephew) Jake were harvesting wheat that day.  Paul took some time from his busy harvesting schedule to talk about his operations. The Orsak family runs a tight rotation of wheat and canola. Why? It’s a business decision.  Farming is a business and in order to keep that business solvent, farmers have to make decisions based upon the marketplace, crop gePAUL ORSAK2netics and the climate.

“We respond to the market and grow what we think will provide the best return.  Some of the crops we used to grow have not provided sufficiently attractive pricing opportunities on a consistent basis to make it worthwhile.  For other crops, disease control became as issue.  Our climate has become wetter since the 1980’s and 90’s and as a result some crops do not do well in our location.”

Paul also pointed out that the genetics of both wheat and canola have improved relative to the other types of crops.  This tips production in their favour.

And how about those GMOs, Paul?

“…GMOs are just another method of plant breeding, something we and nature have been doing for centuries. Genetically engineered or modified crops are simply new and different varieties of existing crops. As knowledge of reproduction and genetics grew, it allowed plant breeders to more rapidly breed new varieties by crossing specific plants to achieve a desired end.  Genetic engineering is simply a more precisely executed extension of that knowledge. The goal is to improve crop genetics and achieve traits that are desirable.” 

[note: there is no genetically engineered wheat on the market]

Itorsak quote 2‘s not only the genetically engineered seeds that have revolutionized farming.  Farm equipment (size, GPS functionality, auto-tracking, etc) allow for greater efficiencies but most importantly – PRECISION – in the placement of seed, fertilizer and pesticides. This all greatly reduces farmers’ input costs and allows for greater sustainability in operations.

It was a fantastic few days connecting with fellow food and farm enthusiasts on the Canola Connect Camp tour! We not only visited the grain farms (above), we also visited a bison operation (this was a first for me), a cattle ranch and a bee farm!

So much to write about and so little time! ;o)

Thanks to the Manitoba Canola Growers Association and the team of Ellen, Jenn, Lori, Simone and Johanne for your roles in making this Camp possible!

Lori Dyck has compiled pictures and tweets into a Storify story of our Canola Connect Camp adventure here! More pictures have been posted by Jenn Dyck here!

Want to get to know that “Farm to Food” connection a bit better? Check out these resources:

The consumer and GMOs: adrift in a sea of misinformation

Last month, I had the opportunity to present to a group of registered dieticians and nutritionists at the Alberta Milk sponsored event, the Nutrition File Seminar.  It was a great opportunity to connect with those that work directly with consumers and have to tackle some of the most difficult questions about how our food is produced every day!

I shared the podium with some really smart folks: Terry Fleck with the Center for Food Integrity, Dr. Steve Savage, Dr. Herman Barkema of the University of Calgary and Shirzad Chunara from Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture. We were all there to answer those questions that consumers often ask about food and food production.

My topic? GMOs. Link to the presentation is HERE.

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The topic of GMOs is a complex one.  Many of the sites listed on the first 10+ pages of a simple Google search will point to statements like “GMOs have not been proven safe” or “they have not been tested safe for consumption.”  GMOs are often referred to as dangerous, toxic or even as time bombs. Many state that GMOs must be “immediately outlawed or banned.”  All this serves to do is to create unnecessary fear in the minds of the consumer. And it most certainly is not a true representation of the science and how genetic engineering and genetically engineered crops have and can benefit farmers and consumers – and society more broadly.

Every major international science body in the world has reviewed multiple independent studies—in some cases numbering in the hundreds—in coming to the consensus conclusion that GMO crops are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods.” – Jon Entine, Forbes.

Here is a partial list of those organizations worldwide that Jon refers to:

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B.J. Murphy (@SciTechJunkie) lists some of the statements that those organizations make in support of GMOs here.

I like to quote author and journalist, Michael Specter who says: “We’ve never lived in a time where we needed science so badly.”

Yes. And we have never lived in a time when we are in a position to so readily deploy science in such meaningful ways.  Yet, we are often blocked by a loud but vocal minority of individuals and organizations that have the capacity to influence the public’s opinion on such things.

It’s good to remember that…

“…no single agricultural technology or farming practice will provide sufficient food for 2050…instead we must advocate for and utilize a range of these technologies in order to maximize yields.” Mark Rosegrant, Director, International Food Policy Research Institute (2014). 

Everyone wants a safe and healthy food supply. But people also need to have access to accurate information in order to make informed choices about their food. Want to know more (facts) about genetic engineering, GMOs, regulatory bits and bites and other related stuff? Check out my five part series on GMOs and public perceptions: Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5.

Verdict: promise not YET met #GMOs

Biology Fortified just launched a series that digs into and critically examines the claims about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and what they realistically offer up in terms of economic, environmental, social and nutritional benefits.  The first of the series entitled “The Promise of GMOs: nutrition” is penned by Anastasia Bodnar. She tackles the claims about GMOs and enhanced nutrition profiles, allergens, and crop oil content. Her diagnosis?

verdict

I admit it. Those five words depressed me.

But maybe not for the reasons you might think.  My initial thought was how will the GMO naysayers like Vandana Shiva, Gilles Eric Séralini and Jeffrey Smith use these words as a vehicle to add yet another layer of grim, gray paint over the possibilities of genetic engineering and GMOs?

I’m a bit of a history junkie.  I came across this article by Wayne D. Rasmussen -> “The Impact of Technological Change on American Agriculture” published in The Journal of Economic History in 1962. In it, Rasmussen explores the transition from animal power to mechanical power between the early 19th century and into the mid 20th century.  Rasmussen characterizes the evolution (and revolutions) in agriculture over time and backs up his work with data. His data, shown here in graph form, highlights just how far agriculture advanced over more than 150 years in terms of overall production (wheat, corn and cotton) and in the reduction of man hours to produce those crops.

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Adapted from Rasmussen 1962

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Adapted from Rasmussen 1962

The introduction of mechanized innovations and other inputs into agriculture practices not only increased production but they also reduced man hours to production ratios.  The time it took to produce a bushel of grain dropped from an average of 440 man hours per bushel in 1800 to only 38 by 1960.

Now, this did take more than 150 years.  Some innovations were adopted more quickly than others and under different economic circumstances or social pressures. As Rasmussen (1962: 579) states, “rate of adoption…is dependent upon the strength and variations in demand for farm products.”

Today, we are dealing with different kinds of innovations in agriculture: genetically engineered crops.  At one extreme, these crops are held up as a revolutionary technology that will meet the demands for a growing world population while at the other end of things they are unfairly demonized as harbingers of evil. And maybe the truth (and value) lies somewhere in the middle.

An FAO study conducted in 2011 reported that 43 per cent of the ag labour force in developing countries was comprised of women and most of the time spent in the fields by these women was weeding.  In South Africa, new varieties of genetically engineered have been introduced that cut down that weeding time. Not revolutionary by any means but good news, right?

verdict2

There’s still loads of opportunity ahead.  But there are barriers.  It is hard to get past the constant drumbeat of propaganda that is misleading, drives public opinion and can impact formation of sound public policy.

Even if the value of genetically engineered crops and GMOs winds up to be something that is less economic or nutritional and more ‘social’ (like, reduced weeding times) who are these people to stand in the way of that ‘promise’?

Dr. Amanda Maxham in her #GMOMonday post at Ayn Rand Centre for Individual Rights says “GMOs should not be held to impossible standards or justified with lofty world-saving promises.”  I agree with her. I also echo her closing statement:

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Narratives in Action: reliable, compelling information about agriculture, food production and health

video_clip_artTED/TEDx TALKS:

UC Davis Professor, Dr. Pam Ronald, shares her thoughts on this Ted Talk: “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food

Will agriculture be allowed to feed 9 billion?: Rob Saik, CEO of The Agri-Trend Group of Companies is a Professional Agrologist and a Certified Agricultural Consultant. Rob is also the producer of the forthcoming documentary Know GMO: an uplifting discussion about food

Can a GMO be natural?: Jimmy Botella, is the Professor of Plant Biotechnology, School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland. He founded the Plant Genetic Engineering Laboratory specialising in the fields of tropical and subtropical agricultural biotechnology. Jimmy has eleven international patents in the field of Plant Biotechnology and is a founding member of two biotechnology companies (Coridon Ltd. and Origo Biotech) a TEDx Talk

Waiter, there is a gene in my soup!: another one by Jimmy Botella. TEDxUQ 

GMO controversies- science vs public fear: – Borut Bohanec is the Chair of the Department of Agronomy, head of the Department of Genetics and Biotechnology at the Biotechnical faculty, University of Ljubljana, TEDxLjubljana

Biotech and the Hungry Planet: Neal Carter, is president and founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits™ (OSF), a biotechnology company specializing in the creation of novel tree fruit varieties. Carter’s goal is to develop safe, high-quality tree fruit cultivars that provide growers, processors, wholesalers, retailers, food service and consumers with improvements in quality and productivity. TEDxPenticton 

Organic or Not: Jayson Lusk is an agricultural economist and a professor at Oklahoma State University.  He is also the author of The Food Police, at TEDxOStateU

Marco and Justin have complied a list of video resources here on Facebook.

SHORT AND SWEET:

There is a five part series on GMOs on Best Food Facts’ YouTube channel (scroll down, but there’s other great stuff in there as well).

Check out Brian Dunning’s “InFact” ‘short’ on GMOs

Here’s a link to Kevin Folta’s interview on HuffPost online program Talk Nerdy to Mehttp://www.biofortified.org/2012/08/gmos-on-the-huffington-post/

MARK LYNAS

If you are willing to sit a bit longer, here are some other videos with Mark Lynas where he highlights his perspective on GMOs, particularly on the value they have for subsistence farmers in developing nations:

Changing Crops for a Changing Climate – What can Biotechnology Contribute?”, Mark Lynas at Cornell University, April, 2013

Using the Tools of Biotechnology to Advance Borlaug’s Legacy”, Mark’s Keynote lecture at BGRI (with intro from Mr. Mann) — New Delhi, India August, 2013

AND here is another interesting one… bit longer, as well:

Jimmy’s Food Fight: Jimmy Doherty, pig farmer, is one-time scientist and poster-boy for sustainable food production is on a mission to find out if GM crops really can feed the world.

HOW TO LOOK SMART ON THE INTERNET

Steve Novella on “The Google University Effect” on NeuroLogica Blog is fantastic! 

Additionally, GMO Skepti-Forum has an amazing list of resources outlined including some great narratives… check out 500 words!
Nodes of Science has what I refer to as “A Guide for Intellectual Honesty”… how to identify B.S., how to assess the credibility of authors and articles, how to access good research, and how to ask for help.
“Cognitive psychology has shown that the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative, mental map, or intuitive theory. Disconnected facts in the mind are like unlinked pages on the Web: They might as well not exist.” – Steven Pinker

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 5 (of 5)

I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers.

Q.5 What are the benefits to GM foods? (see a related blog entry on this):

Most would argue that the benefits of GM food accrue further up the value chain (seed companies and  producers).  But we cannot under-estimate or under-value what these gains mean downstream for consumers.

Studies have been conducted that demonstrate (on average) that GM crops out-produce organics by as much as 30%.  Now, this varies depending on location and soil conditions (and other factors) of course.  But overall, there are productivity gains for genetically engineered crops. GE crop technology is the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture. As of 2012, 170 million hectares worldwide had been planted to biotechnology.  Fastest adopters of late? Third world countries.

Also, we are running out of land and we have a growing world population.  We cannot afford to use any more land base than we already do.  If GE crops can allow us to produce MORE on less land, then having biotech crops in our ag toolbox is important for that fact alone.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cif-green/2010/apr/21/gm-crops-benefit-farmers

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cif-green/2010/apr/21/gm-crops-benefit-farmers

And here is something else that I find compelling. In an FAO study conducted in 2011, it was reported that 43 per cent of the ag labour force was women and most of the time spent in the fields by these women was in weeding. Ugh. New varieties of GE corn introduced to South Africa has cut down weeding time substantially.  This means that women have more time (options?) to pursue off-farm work, spend time with children, pursue educational opportunities??? Isn’t that a good thing?  Then there is GM cotton in India.  Most pesticides are applied by the farmer (no mechanical means).  Besides productivity gains, the introduction of GM cotton in the country has meant fewer passes of pesticides resulting in millions of dollars saved in the country’s health care system.  Here is an article that looks at the benefits of GM crops in India for women.

We are also contending with things like global warming, disease, pests, etc.  We need to develop crop varieties that are adaptable to new environments so that people have options for eating and for production.  Take, for example, the development of flax varieties for northern parts of Canada.  Flax is an important crop for rotation purposes in farm management (plus there are markets for this crop).  Crop rotation is an important part of integrated pest management strategies at the farm-level. Having access to a crop variety for on-farm management rotational practices is important for productivity and for the environment.

Also, the introduction of herbicide tolerant crops has allowed farmers to adopt min or no til practices which is better for the environment (and it helps lower costs for the farmer as well – less time in the field and less money spent on weed control). These herbicide tolerant crops require a lot less product – and fewer passes – to control weeds.

There are many different kinds of genetically engineered crop varieties out there in the product pipeline that have consumer benefits.  For example, there is a low linoleate soy bean that has been modified for no transfats (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/16/business/in-a-bean-a-boon-to-biotech.html?_r=1&).

In the end, the benefits of GM crop adoption and improvements are in quality of life[1], both from a farmer’s perspective and from a consumer’s perspective.  Thus, it is important that we continue to judiciously regulate these crop varieties and ensure that they in the toolbox of options for farmers and as value-add ingredients for our food (consumers).

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 4 (of 5)

I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers. Q.4 Should labeling GM foods be mandatory in Canada? There is a private member bill that has been introduced to label GMOs in Canada plus 24+ legislative (municipal and state level) initiatives currently on ‘the books’ in the US.  This whole issue of labeling is not going away anytime soon.  The problem is that the issue is often oversimplified in the media.  It’s not as simple as slapping a label on a can and calling it a day. image4 Mandatory labeling invokes traceability within the food system.  And no matter what the headlines say, that means costs.  When people think GMOs and labeling, they most often think big seed companies[1] (like Monsanto) and big retailers (like Walmart). The ag and food production value chain is long and complex, comprised of many different actors including producers/farmers, elevator managers, grain distributors, seed companies, food processors, transporters, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants, etc. If governments were to enact mandatory labeling [2], costs would be incurred throughout that value chain (all actors). And those costs would be passed onto the consumer. In addition to increased food costs, mandatory labeling of GMOs would have other effects. According to the results of a recent study[3] conducted by MIT professor Juaniuan Zhang, consumers assumes that the government knows more than they do about the safety of the food supply.  So, if the government requires labels on food, consumers will suspect that there is something wrong with it.  Thus, a GMO label runs the real risk of looking like a warning label. On a related note, our current food labeling system (regulated by the federal government) operates on some fundamental tenets.  First off, labels on food products are reserved for foodstuffs that carry a documented health risk (eg. allergen) or in cases where products represent a substantive change in nutritional composition.  Scientific evidence affirms that GMO foods are indistinguishable from foods produced through traditional methods (see studies mentioned above).  Labeling them for consumers (mandatory) would be misleading.  Labels, by law, cannot be misleading.  The other argument here is that if people wish to avoid GMOs, they can.  There are third party certified labels for “non GMO” (The Non GMO Project) and you can always choose to buy “certified organic” (US and Canada).  So, a GMO label seems a bit redundant. image4a Now, voluntary labeling on the part of the food industry is a whole other issue.  Some argue that industry should have been more proactive long ago and incorporated what is referred to as “positive” labeling strategies for products with GMO ingredients.  It may have mitigated some of the controversy that has gone on for the past 20 years.  This voluntary labeling thing is not out of the realm of possibilities for now either.  But the devil will be in the details. How and what to label is the real question.  It will be interesting to see how all this plays out. Here’s two sides to the issue that are very illustrative and from people that I view as evidence-based and ‘reasoned’: Check out Mark Lynas’ take on labels and his argument for ‘transparency’: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/10/why-we-need-to-label-gmos/ Also, I like this post by my colleague Chris MacDonald on “Right to Know What I am Eating” on his blog “Food Ethics”: http://food-ethics.com/2010/09/28/the-right-to-know-what-im-eating/


[1] There are often statements in the media “If you are so proud of your products, Monsanto, why don’t you label them?” This shows that people really don’t have an understanding the ag and food value chain.  These companies (like Bayer, BASF< Dow, Monsanto, etc) market to farmers. Period. And those seeds (if they are genetically engineered) are VERY WELL labeled as such. Now, the reason that these big companies get involved in funding “say no to GMO labels” is because they are supporting and advocating for the interests of downstream industry actors (like food companies).  They are also taking into consideration what impacts labeling would have at the farm, elevator, transport levels too.  Segregation costs (and other administrative and management costs) are big costs.
[2] At the government level, these costs would be incurred by the public purse, of course.
[3] The Zhang study: http://jjzhang.scripts.mit.edu/docs/Zhang_2014_GMO.pdf – – – – GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5.